In its early stages, pancreatic cancer has no symptoms. In its later stages it basically untreatable. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of death due to cancer in the United States. The NCI estimates that in 2019 there will be nearly 57,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed, which will result in approximately 46,000 deaths. Those who survive this deadly cancer are invariably those who were fortunate enough to have had their cancer diagnosed at a relatively early stage.
Recently, researchers discovered a fundamental new insight into the workings of pancreatic cancer. Dr. Diane Simeone, the director of the Pancreatic Cancer Center at the New York University Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, and her colleagues discovered an extremely promising new treatment for this devastating disease. Their findings will soon be published in the journal Genes & Development.
During the study, Dr. Simeone and her colleagues focused on a particular type of pancreatic cell known as acinar cells. Acinar cells produce digestive enzymes that can cause damage to the small intestine. In order to compensate for this damage, acinar cells revert to a stage that is similar to a stem cell. These new cells repair damaged tissue, but they also grow rapidly.
During the process of acinar cells’ growth, DNA mutations can occur. In order to study this process, the researchers created a set of mice with pancreatitis. This is an inflammatory condition, which causes acinar cells to transform into what is known as high growth ductal cells.
It is well-known that one of the main instigators of the mutation leading to pancreatic cancer is the so-called KRAS oncogene. Dr. Simeone and her colleagues noted that the mice with pancreatitis developed increased ATDC levels which led to the development of high growth ductal cells. And when high growth ductal cells and the KRAS oncogene were both present, every mouse developed pancreatic cancer.
This led the researchers to explore the idea of removing the ATDC gene. When this was done, none of the mice developed cancer. In the words of Dr. Simeone, “We found that deleting the ATDC gene in pancreatic cells resulted in one of the most profound blocks of tumor formation ever observed.”
As our understanding of the human genome continues to unfold, we can expect profound new discoveries and therapies to treat the diseases that afflict us.
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